Biotechnology – A Failed Promise

, sr. scientist emeritus, Food & Environment | August 25, 2011, 4:03 pm EST
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This is the first post in a blog about food, agriculture, environment and technology. Before I get started, I thought I might say a bit about my somewhat checkered background and perspective.

Cornfield near house

Photo: Dodo Bird

I grew up Iowa in the 1950’s in a city where the expanding housing developments were cheek-by-jowl with fields of corn and a sprinkling of pigsties. Agriculture was all around me, but in truth I never thought much about it. I wanted to study biology, which was in the throes of the revolutionary discoveries about DNA and RNA. So off I went to study molecular biology, and eventually earned a Ph.D.

While I was in graduate school, I became in interested in the environment—I chaired the first Earth Day at my university—and shifted gears and went to law school.  After a stint in an environmental law firm, I ended up in the early 1980s working in an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C.

Although my job centered on pesticides and toxics, the air was full of the new science of genetic engineering. The new “biotechnologies” had been successfully applied in the manufacture of insulin and other new drugs, and were headed outdoors, mostly in applications related to agriculture.

The vision

The vision offered by genetic engineers in those days was stunning and seductive: high crop yields without the application of poisons to kill pests and weeds. The appeal went right to the core of environmental concerns.  In the future, Rachel Carson could rest more easily. Spring would be silent no more, but instead the sounds of birds and insects would again fill the air.

Genetic engineering would also address another fundamental challenge for farmers—dependency on chemical fertilizers. Scientists promised to equip corn plants with new genes so they could themselves convert nitrogen into the reactive forms essential to the construction of plant and animal life. Farmers would no longer have to rely on the chemical fertilizers, which, for the most part, ran right past the crops to pollute wells and coastal ecosystems.

This was a sweeping vision of agriculture unlike any the world had known. It would solve farmers’ age-old challenges—lack of soil fertility and eternally unwelcome pests. It was breathtaking. And it was going to be so easy—just switch to the new miracle seeds (or eventually the new animals) made by molecular biologists.

To be sure, there were concerns about the inadvertent creation of harmful organisms and the prospects of the application of genetic engineering of humans sometime in the future.  But at the beginning, a revolutionary and benign vision of a new agriculture dominated the conversation.

And I confess, I was taken in by the promise. To me, the snipping and rearrangement of pieces of DNA was familiar and exciting, not scary. Molecular techniques had revolutionized biology, why not agriculture?

The reality

As decades have gone by, I have outgrown my initial enthusiasm for the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.  I am not, like some, fundamentally opposed to the technology.  It has undeniably beneficial uses, especially in research laboratories, and even has scored a few successes in agriculture.

But twenty years after its inception, the achievements have been few and modest, the sum of them not even close to the inspiring vision of the early years. The talk now is more mundane than revolutionary, more about improvements around the edges of the same old agriculture system I grew up with. The shimmering early promise of genetic engineering has evaporated like dew on a summer morning. In some ways, I’m perhaps still a bit disappointed that molecular biology didn’t have the solution.

But over the decades, I’ve come to understand that there are other, better ways to achieve the vision. High crop yields are possible without poisonous inputs and soil fertility can be achieved with fewer of the destructive effects of chemical fertilizers.  It won’t be as easy as buying miracle seeds. It will require a sophisticated understanding of soils, the environment, and crops and livestock.  But it can be done—and, indeed, has to be done if we are going to feed the addition billions of hungry people expected on our planet in the next 40 years.  We can’t afford to take agriculture for granted as I once did.

These issues have formed the core of my professional life and interest me deeply. Blogging on them is a good way to sharpen my thinking and engage in productive dialogue. Let the blog begin.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture

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  • E. Gore (no relation to Al)

    To Marcia: You seem to have conveniently overlooked a few minor details contained in the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food report.

    Seems Mssr. De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur, is of the opinion that ‘agroecology’ techniques may have application in those regions (Malawi specifically) where farming is so hopelessly backward that practically anything would be an improvement. Certainly no one disagrees with him. He is careful, however, with his unfounded optimism that agroecology could “double food production”, to avoid extrapolating it beyond the hypothetical test case of Malawi into developed countries with functioning modern agricultural systems. In developed countries the prospect of “doubling” food production with the introduction of any one set of practices, much less agroecology, is a most naive, impractical and absurd prospect, indeed.

    As one might have expected, the UN’s Special Rapporteur is short on details of proven ‘agroecology’ technique and long on pleas for the traditional spectrum of generous ‘assistance’ in the form of policy and, of course, the indispensable lifeblood of an alternative agriculture farcically touted as ‘sustainable’; outside economic support. We’ve become conditioned to expect this from UN reports. Problem is, we’ve been ‘supporting’ dreamy alternative agriculture study models for half a century with nothing more to show for our investment than the standard vague future promise of incredible results forthcoming – results that have not materialized on a practical commercial scale and that, by now after so much fruitless investigation, we can safely conclude probably never will.

    A most interesting point set forth in the UN report is that ‘agroecology’ methods might best be “complementary to better known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties”. And De Schutter wisely further hedges his bet by conceding; “while investment in organic fertilizing techniques should be a priority, this should not exclude the use of other fertilizers”. Also, the necessity of “integration of livestock into farming systems” is discretely acknowledged. That’s some pretty fancy tap dancing on the part of a prominent agroecologist and a very, very wise fall-back position to have prepared should his recommendations ever be put to the test.

    Frankly, if agroecology had truly demonstrated on a practical commercial scale any of the remarkable attributes it claims for itself, those would already have been readily adopted without fanfare by our sensible agricultural professionals. Introducing practical methods to struggling farmers in 3rd world settings is a worthy undertaking, but no fanfare is necessary in order for them to recognize and adopt a truly practical innovation, either. Those of us who know real farmers and real farming can trust in the Malawian’s good sense and practical nature, just as we respect the good judgement of our own proven food producers. If you disrespect trained, experienced agricultural professionals (as evidently you passionately do), no amount of fanfare will entice them to respect or trust your naive insistence that they can and should essentially substitute sublime poetry for expertly guided plowshares. There is real work to be done and the stakes are high for humanity, as well as for the environment. When it comes to the business of producing abundant, safe, affordable food to nourish 6 billion people each and every day, well, in the vulgar parlance of real farmers; bullshit walks, Marcia.

    I refer you back to your own reference:

  • Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, PhD

    Many thanks, Margaret, for starting this blog and sharing your expertise on these issues. As a fellow scientist, I’m very much looking forward to hearing your insights into the latest developments in the agricultural sciences, and their relative potential and actual contributions to complex and pressing problems in our food and agricultural system.

    To E. Gore: You may be interested to learn that scientists from around the world are increasingly looking to the agroecological sciences for advanced, state of the art, forward-looking solutions to the complex problems of global climate, water, energy, food and soil crises. We simply cannot afford to continue with chemical-based, energy and water-intensive industrial agriculture. The latter is increasingly understood to represent the “obsolete farming methods” you express concern about (the “horse-drawn trolley” in your analogy). Despite all the hype, GMOs have also failed to deliver (UCS has the data on this, more below) – and as a global society facing very serious challenges to our immediate and long term survival, we simply can’t afford to keep tilting at that expensive but deeply flawed windmill — not when we have such strong and proven alternatives.

    These are the consistent conclusions coming from scientists at independent U.N. organizations, including the prestigious UN-led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the UN Food & Ag Organization (FAO), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD), and independent scientists the world over (links given below).

    The latest scientific and empirical evidence advises us to swiftly and decisively redirect our agricultural investments and policy supports towards innovative, cutting edge agroecological science, integrated with proven and ever-evolving local and Indigenous farmers’ knowledge and practice. The UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food reports, for example, that agroecological farming can double food production, with advances expected to be even higher in Africa. UNEP & UNCTAD already concluded in 2007 that organic agriculture offers Africa its best option for achieving food security.

    Here are a few places (in addition to the excellent resources on UCS’ website) where you can get up to speed with the latest innovative science-based solutions to the challenges we face today:

    For those with little time to read through the full reports listed above, here are 2 short syntheses of the UN IAASTD’s findings on agroecology vs. genetic engineering:

    Blog on, Margaret!

  • E. Gore (no relation to Al)

    Margaret, if you’ve felt disappointment over your adolescent expectations for biotechnology, you’ve set us up for another crushing let-down from your wish for a resurgence of obsolete farming methods. Many have been dreaming your simplistic agrarian ideal for more than half a century and, still, organic agriculture farms less than 1% of America’s productive farmland.

    You may as well dream a return of exclusively horse-drawn trolly cars for public transit in all our cities, towns and villages. We overcame bad news about Santa and the tooth fairy, we can handle a little more reality.